After losing four games by a combined 15 points last year, UCLA had a simple mantra for this hopeful year: “Finish.”
On Saturday night, in a familiar refrain from 2020, it was Fresno State that finished the Bruins.
The UCLA defense that was determined to rise after giving up late leads in inexplicable fashion to USC and Stanford last year faltered again Saturday in a 40-37 loss to Fresno State at the Rose Bowl. The Bulldogs, winners of four straight matchups against the Bruins, needed less than a minute to go three-quarters of the field to score the game-winning touchdown with 14 seconds left.
Only 40 seconds before, the No. 13 Bruins (2-1) looked like they had the game won on a 15-yard touchdown pass from Dorian Thompson-Robinson to Kyle Philips. The remaining UCLA fans who stayed as the game approached midnight shook the Rose Bowl when Philips walked into the wide-open end zone.
Just one stop and 75 yards stood between them and the program’s first 3-0 start since 2015.
“You look at it, 75 yards, it’s a tough task,” coach Chip Kelly said. “But they made more plays than we did and that’s why we end up in the L column and they end up in the W column.”
On the decisive drive, Fresno State quarterback Jake Haener, who was hobbled by a hip injury that left him limping across the field, misfired on first down. He then rattled off completions of 10, 27 and 26 yards to move the ball to UCLA’s 12-yard line. Frazzled by the speed of Fresno State’s drive, the Bruins called a timeout. They held Ronnie Rivers to a one-yard loss on the ensuing pass play, but the running back was able to get out of bounds, stopping the clock with 23 seconds left.
On the next play, Haener found Jalen Cropper, who caught a back-shoulder fade and spun into the end zone untouched. UCLA cornerback Mo Osling III could only slouch his shoulders as he pushed Cropper out of bounds after it was too late.
Haener completed 39-of-53 passes for 455 yards, two touchdowns and one interception.
“That’s as good of a performance I’ve seen a quarterback make in my career,” said Kelly.
Haener’s most impressive throw of the night may have come on his second-to-last drive, when UCLA fans, feeding off the energy of back-to-back touchdown drives that put the Bruins up 30-26, rose to their feet on third-and-goal from the 19-yard line. Haener threw a perfectly placed pass that whizzed past the outstretched arms of UCLA defensive back Jay Shaw and into the stomach of Erik Brooks in the front corner of the end zone.
Haener was left writhing on the field and grabbing his left hip after the play.
“When the pressure was great, he was at his best,” Fresno State coach Kalen DeBoer said. “That’s what’s awesome.”
The cracks that showed in UCLA’s defense throughout the game resurfaced during the final drive. Threatened by the deep ball, the Bruins ceded large cushions to the Fresno State receivers, dooming them to a slower, more painful demise by dozens of short completions. Haener didn’t complete a pass longer than 31 yards.
“We didn’t really think we were going to lose,” safety Qwuantrezz Knight said. “We knew that it was going to be a fight. Fresno came out and played well, and it was a fourth-quarter finish.”
By the end of the fourth quarter, UCLA was finished and UCLA fans who had been preparing to count another victory only minutes earlier were left stunned. Players lingered in solemn silence on the field before retreating to the locker room. Meanwhile, Fresno State fans eagerly embraced their players near the south end zone, as Rose Bowl security guards ensured that no one rushed the field.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.